Beirut’s Pigeon Fanciers: a Mix of Thugs and Theorists

Despite its reputation as an anarchic practice, breeding is a sophisticated, high-stakes game for many

Beirut’s Pigeon Fanciers: a Mix of Thugs and Theorists
A couple of English Fantails pigeons / David Degner / Getty Images

Would Saleh, a 44-year-old father, steal his neighbor’s pigeons?

“Do you want me to lie and say no?” he smirked, as separate pigeon flocks swirled above southern Beirut’s Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp, inhabited by Palestinians since 1949.

Standing proudly on his rooftop, Saleh hastily corrects his apparent slip of the tongue. “I do not steal and others do not steal. And if anyone’s pigeon gets lost, of course we return it to the owner.” The rooftop tour continues, with Saleh proudly displaying his pigeons and striking up cordial conversation with his neighbor, a fellow pigeon fancier.

Unfortunately for Saleh, his precocious 11-year-old Ali has not read the script. As father valiantly defends the reputation of Burj al-Barajneh’s pigeon enthusiasts, son reveals his tricks for luring birds away from their masters. Key implements include clementines, pieces of chicken and several suspicious-looking straw nets.

“It’s just like fishing!” Ali enthused. Bowed but not broken, Saleh shoos Ali away. Saleh resumes waxing lyrical about his love for birds; Ali takes a pole and mimes shooting pigeons from the sky.

Back down on street level, Saleh’s neighbor Doudou, 24, emerges from the camp’s labyrinthine passages next to a military checkpoint. While Lebanese soldiers scrutinize drivers passing by, Doudou lights a cigarette.

“Saleh does not want you to know everything,” he warned.

For thousands of years, pigeons have captured the imaginations of enthusiasts the world over. In the Middle East, locals have long appreciated pigeons’ intoxicating combination of beauty and intelligence.

The Mesopotamian “Epic of Gilgamesh” features a courageous pigeon relaying news of a great flood. In ancient Lebanon, wealthy Phoenician families would send pigeon flocks ahead when returning from Cyprus and other foreign lands.

Yet Saleh has good cause to worry about the reputation of pigeon breeders, who have endured centuries’ worth of dim stereotypes and disparaging slurs. While pigeon enthusiasts consider themselves learned ornithologists, Lebanese Arabic offers them a less glamorous epithet: “kashashin hamam,” which loosely translates as “pigeon swatters.” The same dismissive term applies to pigeon owners in Syria and Jordan, while Iraqi hobbyists bear the similar, no-more-flattering title “matyarchi.”

“Never trust the testimony of a matyarchi,” warns one Iraqi proverb, neatly marking out pigeon breeders’ lowly place in the region’s social hierarchy. Under customary law in both Lebanon and Syria, courts reportedly attach less weight to evidence given by kashashin hamam.

Elsewhere, pigeon owners have long struggled for credibility. In one example, English author B.P. Brent observed that Victorian pigeon fanciers were “associated in all men’s minds with Costermongers, Pugilists, Rat-catchers, and Dog-stealers, and for no other reason that we can discern than that the majority of Pigeon Fanciers were artisans.”

Of course, Brent may well have revised his kindhearted theory had he met the mischievous Ali on his family’s roof in modern-day Beirut. Every day, Beirut’s pigeon fanciers battle for supremacy in a high-stakes, high-altitude struggle: luring birds away from rival flocks. Winners enjoy bragging rights and neighborhood prestige. Losers often resort to humiliating, groveling entreaties for their birds’ safe return.

The pigeon game takes on special importance in lower-income areas like the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp, where Palestinian refugees have endured decadeslong, intergenerational poverty. “[The pigeon game] concretizes power games of the neighborhood,” claims anthropologist Emma Aubin-Boltanski, who studies social dynamics among pigeon fanciers in Hay Gharbe, an informal settlement in southern Beirut that hosts thousands of Syrian refugees.

While many rivalries remain on friendly terms — every night, at pigeon cafes across Beirut, fanciers swap tales of conquest and theft — some contests devolve into intimidation and violence. “It becomes a way to assert power,” Aubin-Boltanski explained in an interview. “What happens on the roof stays on the roof.”

The pigeon game’s dark shadow looms over all Lebanese fanciers — not to mention the birds’ unfortunate contributions to public noise and defecation levels. These drawbacks aside, nostalgia stirs in hearts, even for outsiders, upon seeing pigeon flocks gracefully rising and falling in unison, with sunset lingering on Beirut’s myriad rooftops.

Back outside the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp, Doudou fleshes out his alternative view on the neighborhood pigeon-fancying scene. “Pigeons are a source of conflict here. We have many fights, especially in the summer.”

Like Ali, Doudou demonstrates a level of candor unlikely to please Saleh. “I remember eight years ago, when Saleh came to us with cuts all over his face,” Doudou recalled. Apparently, Saleh had become embroiled in a fight over a pigeon, which Saleh stood accused of stealing. While the aggrieved fancier may no longer have owned that particular pigeon, he did still own a knife — to Saleh’s detriment.

Saleh accepted the knife wounds, according to Doudou, rather than surrendering the captured pigeon. This plucky display left Saleh with a Pyrrhic victory of sorts, given that he could use the stolen bird only for breeding, away from prying eyes. “Obviously he could not fly the pigeon, because then this guy would know for sure that he stole it,” Doudou reasoned.

Others, just like Saleh, have left themselves exposed to the neighborhood’s all-consuming pigeon game. Doudou offered the cautionary tale of another friend, who bought an expensive bird and then had the temerity to fly it. “He’s stupid. The pigeon was taken to Syria as a hostage, and he was told to pay $1,000 to get it back,” Doudou chuckled. “He raises chickens now.”

While the pigeon game may seem anarchic, participants usually follow accepted rules of engagement. Owners can elect to fly their pigeons in agreed “sulh” (conciliation) zones, where fanciers return each other’s lost birds. In “sayd” (hunting) zones, captors keep their prisoners — or exact some pound of flesh before handing them back.

For pigeon fanciers, lines can blur between the game and ordinary life. “Sometimes, owners take their family rivalries up into the sky,” Doudou said, explaining that the area has witnessed shootings over pigeons. He adds that the Burj al-Barajneh camp benefits from being controlled by three main families, whose elders can usually defuse tensions among irate pigeon owners.

Elsewhere, communities have more trouble maintaining the peace. “Over in Shatila [refugee camp], they are too violent even for us,” Doudou said.

In the Hay Gharbe informal settlement, Aubin-Boltanski traces violent conflict over pigeons to a highly localized class struggle. In the past decade, thousands of Syrian refugees have flooded into the area, bringing with them their homeland’s famous passion for pigeon fancying. Unfortunately, this obsession brings the refugees face to face with local Lebanese “zu’ran” (thugs) and “qabadayat” (henchmen), who also dabble in pigeons.

The distinction between conciliation and hunting zones means little to Hay Gharbe’s powerbrokers. According to Aubin-Boltanski, three Lebanese men control Hay Gharbe’s skies. While Syrians must always return captured pigeons, the same rules do not apply to birds that zu’ran steal from refugees. One owner insists that all Syrian fanciers recall their pigeons when he wants to send up his own expensive flock. Any stragglers are unceremoniously shot, one by one, with his Kalashnikov rifle.

One Sunday afternoon, Wissam Daher’s men have a peculiar mission: cleaning pigeon droppings from enormous, cast-iron statues of horses and pelicans. Such demands fall to employees at Daher’s store, which lies a stone’s throw from the Cola intersection, Beirut’s main transit hub for travel to Lebanon’s southern cities.

For many years, Daher has sold both pigeons and antiquities, with the former’s cages propped ominously above the latter — to his staff’s chagrin.

“You won’t find any other place like this in the world,” Daher declares proudly. At this moment, with a high-powered hose blasting soiled cast-iron statues clean, his boast is difficult to dispute.

Daher had hurried to the store that day at short notice, lest anyone besmirch the reputation of pigeon breeders. “You need to be careful whom you speak with about pigeons,” he warned. “Most people around here don’t know what they are talking about.”

As if to illustrate his point, Daher waves his arm imperiously at a small flock of pigeons circling overhead, under a local fancier’s control. “Those pigeons are only worth $50,” he scoffed.

Daher started his own bird collection when he was 11. From that tender age, he has established himself as a leading purveyor of pigeons smuggled in from Syria, Turkey and elsewhere. His well-heeled clients range from a local Mercedes-Benz dealer to the owner of Al-Salam Hospital in Tripoli.

Yet, despite his apparent social clout, Daher has not escaped judgment for raising pigeons. As Daher races off to handle some pigeon or statue-related disaster, his wife Jinan sheds light on their colorful marriage. “Before our wedding, I thought that he only dealt in antiquities,” she recalled. “He waited until after we were married to tell me about the pigeons.”

“My family would not have liked it,” she explained. “Pigeon fancying has a bad connotation.”

As married life got underway, Jinan faced challenges from Daher’s other great love: pigeons. Early one morning, she woke to her husband holding a furtive phone conversation. Feigning sleep, Jinan started hearing eyebrow-raising questions, such as “Does she look like her sister?” and “What is her chest like?”

“I was thinking that, surely, he is talking about some other woman,” Jinan added, arching her eyebrows even in the retelling. Unwittingly, Daher calmed the apocalyptic matrimonial storm brewing beside him by switching to a less ambiguous topic: the pigeon’s tail feathers.

Like the Palestinian fancier Saleh, Daher denies participating in the “pigeon game” with his own flock. Indeed, he dreams of developing his property in the mountains above Jbeil, far from the intrigue of Beirut’s scheming owners. In the Cola neighborhood, both Daher and Jinan confirm that rivalries often turn violent over captured birds.

For Daher, the Jbeil property offers a way out. “I will be able to fly my pigeons in peace,” he explained. “I’m working on it.”

Having defended the noble art of pigeon fancying, Daher discloses an even better source on the millennia-old obsession: Imad Alameh, a renowned fancier and professional translator in the southern suburb of Chiyah. “Al Eztez [the gentleman] Imad is the best pigeon breeder in the world,” Daher stated flatly. “You need to speak with him.”

Imad with his pigeons / Courtesy of authors / New Lines

The main road through Chiyah bustles with weekend activity as flocks of scooters buzz past old men drinking coffee together. One group has no trouble pointing the way to Alameh’s house, whose reputation precedes him. “The translator? Oh, the bird breeder! First street on the right: Ask anyone else and they will know.”

In an old apartment building — inevitably, on the top floor — lives Alameh, a tall, grandfatherly figure with a slow, calm voice. Alameh splits his time between his Chiyah home, where he cares for his elderly mother, and his countryside property in Damour, about 30 minutes’ drive south of Beirut. In both locations, Alameh’s beloved pigeons occupy pride of place.

From the outset, Alameh rejects the label of kashash hamam, describing his passion in more refined terms. “I am a bird breeder,” he asserts. “Kash means to swat something away. But I take care of the pigeons, breed them, invest in them.”

Minutes later, he took a notebook and wrote out a poetic tribute to pigeons — which he proofread to perfection in three different languages.

Under my wings it is written,
My love will never be forgotten

As he grew up in 1950s and 1960s Beirut, Alameh was constantly surrounded by pigeons. His childhood duties always included raising birds, to the point where he knew no other way of living. “When I went to school, I believed that it was normal to clean and care for pigeons,” he recalled. “There always needed to be pigeons around me. I always wanted a house, a garden … and pigeons.”

The hobby has always made sense in densely populated Beirut where families often cannot raise other domestic animals in their crowded apartments. On rooftops, pigeon enthusiasts can unleash their passion in the greatest public space available — the sky.

While other owners lay claim to breeding credentials, Alameh has studied the genealogy of birds for decades. His research has taken him through countless ornithology books, not to mention many scores of international trips — from Syria to Germany to the United States — to learn from pigeon experts. “It is an addiction,” Alameh smiled. “You can learn how to change everything [about the birds]: their color, their body — even their brains.”

In his rooftop enclosure, Alameh categorizes his different pigeons with color-coded tags, each of which represents one specific breed or another.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alameh’s approach permits no tolerance for the “pigeon game,” in which he refuses to participate. “I am a scientist,” he said. “Nobody crosses me. They know that they must return my birds.” Despite this, Alameh’s nerves tingle when other flocks fly near his birds, lest a renegade fancier break with convention and seize his prized animals.

While Alameh has largely removed himself from local strife, he has enjoyed less success in rallying Beirut’s pigeon fanciers to work together. In recent years, Alameh tried to establish a local association for pigeon breeding — a project that collapsed for lack of interest.

“No one took it seriously,” he claimed. “Their main aspiration is the power struggle and the game rather than sustaining the Lebanese breed.”

Lebanon’s unprecedented, escalating economic crisis — which the World Bank already ranks among the most severe financial collapses since the 1850s — has battered Beirut’s pigeon fanciers. On top of their upfront purchase price, pigeons devour maize and lentils, the prices for which continue to rise amid rampant inflation.

Alameh, who has forged a successful career as a translator of five languages, needed to sell some pigeons to buyers in Jordan and elsewhere. Daher’s trade in pigeons dwindled, leaving him making just one or two sales per month.

In Burj al-Barajneh, Doudou fears for the local pigeon doyen Saleh, who had trouble making ends meet even before Lebanon’s economy imploded. “Saleh would let his children starve to feed his pigeons,” he said grimly.

Hard financial times are a new disincentive to enter pigeon breeding, on top of the very real threat of violence and bloodshed. Saleh has forbidden his precocious boy Ali from raising his own birds, preferring that he focus on his studies. He also worries for his son’s social life.

“In my life, all I want to look at is birds,” Saleh revealed. “I don’t even look at women, because I always have my eyes on the sky.”

As night falls — and Burj al-Barajneh’s pigeons return to their rooftop cages, safe for another evening — Doudou walks outside the camp to bid farewell. Only one question remains: Despite everything, would he ever venture into pigeon fancying himself?

“Absolutely,” he said, beaming. “I plan to start [this] summer.”

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